‘If you can play, you can play’: New initiative teams up with NHL to support gay athletes

By Lindsey Woods

Locker rooms are known for two things: sweatiness and shenanigans. But for gay athletes, they can be a place of shame and exclusion.

Eric Berndt, Chicago Dragons rugby player and openly gay athlete, said he experienced “casual homophobia” in the locker rooms during his time competing at both the University of Chicago and in high school.

“In both situations, casual remarks about who’s an ‘F-word’ and ‘this is so gay’ or imputing desire to perform certain sexual acts on another person as a joke was really common,” Berndt said. “Even though I think there were a couple people who were mean-spirited and homophobic on both of my teams, just like anywhere else in life, most of those guys certainly didn’t know that there was a gay person in their midst and wouldn’t have wanted to do those things had they known.”

The You Can Play Project, an initiative started to support gay athletes, aims to eliminate this kind of casual homophobia in locker rooms and make gay athletes feel more accepted by their teammates.

“We’re hoping to eliminate homophobic slurs and ‘casual homophobia,’ as we call it, in the locker room and among fans and all areas of sports,” said Teale Stone, director of College Programs for the You Can Play Project.

The You Can Play campaign kicked off in early March by airing a series of Public Service Announcements during professional hockey games. The PSAs featured current National Hockey League players, including Duncan Keith, Rick Nash, Henrik Lundqvist and Claude Giroux, delivering one simple message: If you can play, you can play.

Brady Hudson, captain of the Columbia Renegades volleyball team, said the PSAs’ message on equality in athletics is inspiring.

“The PSA says a lot about humans in general, accepting people and tolerating them for their differences,” Hudson said. “It’s amazing.”

Stone said in order to get athletes for the PSA, the organization called and sent emails to NHL teams asking for participants.

“It was pretty remarkable the kind of respect and support we got from the entire NHL,” he said. “Eventually players started hearing about this, and they started approaching us and saying that they really like what we were doing and that they really wanted to do it.”

The campaign partnered with the NHL because of the ties its founders have to hockey, Stone said. Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke and his son Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, started the project to honor the memory of Brendan Burke, Patrick’s brother and Brian’s son, who died in a

car accident in 2010. The accident came three years after Brendan, who was the manager of the Miami, Ohio, hockey team, came out to his family.

After Brendan announced he was gay, the Burkes became ardent supporters of the LGBT community. Since starting the You Can Play Project, fellow managers, players, coaches and fans have joined them in support. They have almost 3,100 “likes” on Facebook and approximately 8,500 followers on Twitter.

“I remember waking up, seeing the PSA and thinking it was really cool,” Stone said. “Within the next hour, with social media like Facebook and Twitter, there was an overwhelming amount of supporting the cause and followers and ‘likes’ on Facebook. I think it surprised all of us.”

In addition to making PSAs, the organization hopes to branch out into other sports to continue honoring their motto, “Gay athletes. Straight allies. Teaming up for respect.”

While the organization had garnered support from straight allies on the professional level, it will be difficult to recruit gay professional, athletes to team up with, considering there are currently no openly gay athletes playing in the NHL or any other professional league. There are some players like basketball player John Amaechi who came out after their professional careers were over, but Berndt attributes the lack of actively gay athletes to the stereotype that the You Can Play Project is trying to eradicate.

“I think it is a fear,” Berndt said. “I think it would be very difficult still for someone to be openly gay in a sport like pro football or pro hockey or even baseball, just because it is still very common to assume that one is weaker because one is gay.”

Stone stressed that getting closeted athletes to come out is not one of the goals of the You Can Play Project, but he added that a professional role model for gay athletes would benefit the organization’s cause.

“You don’t want athletes to feel like we’re doing this to get people to come out,” Stone said. “But I know that Patrick [Burke] said openly that within the next year or two, we will see an openly gay professional athlete. I think that would be good because it could give kids and teens someone to look up to and someone to admire.”

While both Hudson and Berndt expressed nothing but support for the You Can Play Project, they had doubts about the campaign’s effectiveness.

“Change isn’t going to happen instantly,” Hudson said. “It’s going to take time to change. But if the athletes themselves are saying that as a straight man, it doesn’t bother me,’ and they’re the ones playing, that’s a start.”